This story is part of Billboard’s 2022 Grammy Preview issue, highlighting the artists, issues and trends that will define awards season. Read our cover story on Halsey, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross here.
“This has been the most magical year of my life,” Olivia Rodrigo said in September at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she was named best new artist. And given the kind of planets-aligning commercial and critical success she has neatly achieved in this calendar year, it’s probably not the last award of that name she’ll claim in the coming months.
Few times in Grammy Awards history has there been such an obvious frontrunner for the category as Rodrigo. She is the first artist to debut her first three singles inside the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, including two No. 1s: “drivers license” and “good 4 u,” both off her debut album, Sour, which has topped the Billboard 200 for five nonconsecutive weeks. Her meteoric rise has drawn comparisons to that of Billie Eilish, who swept the Big Four awards at the 2020 ceremony — the first time since Christopher Cross in 1981, and perhaps the only other time in the past decade where the best new artist winner has been so predictable.
So what does that mean for everyone else? Multiple industry sources tell Billboard that labels typically do not take the potential competition into consideration when deciding which artists to submit, since those decisions are made early in the year. “We set our mantra at the top of the year,” says one label source, “and we follow it through all year long.” But strategy does come into play, given that even a nomination in the category has the potential to greatly change an act’s career. “Mumford & Sons were nominated [in 2011] and they did not win, but I think it motivated them,” says Glassnote Records founder/president Daniel Glass. “The next time they got nominated, they won for album of the year.”
Artists and executives have long complained about the ambiguity of the best new artist rules, which have changed several times in the past decade. The award goes to the act that “achieved a breakthrough into the public consciousness and notably impacted the musical landscape” during the eligibility year, according to the Recording Academy rulebook. Every year, an official screening committee reviews the list of submissions — which can run from 500 to 1,000 names long, according to a source — to determine who is eligible. Last year, the Recording Academy scrapped a rule that disqualified artists who had released either 30 songs or three albums — better reflecting how artists release music today, but making eligibility even more subjective.
Most labels and their artists’ teams identify that “breakthrough” by looking at factors including multiple hit singles, strong airplay, magazine covers and placement in artist programs like YouTube’s Artist on the Rise. “We look at live attendance and merch sales,” says Glass. “You know you’re developing fans when they buy your T-shirt.” Another label source’s method? “My test is people who are not in the industry,” she says. “I’ll say to my friends and family, ‘Do you know [this artist]?’”
Complicating those calculations is the fact that an artist can be submitted for best new artist consideration up to three times. For acts on the cusp of fame, especially in a particular genre, they must decide between trying to capitalize on initial buzz or waiting for an even bigger breakthrough in the future. Margo Price had already been hailed as country music’s next star after the release of her debut solo album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, in 2016, but the success of her 2017 follow-up, All-American Made, earned her a best new artist nomination at the 2019 ceremony. “She had taken on a whole new level of stature,” says Matt Pollock, co-GM at Price’s management firm, Monotone. “That was a justifiable submission because she was still in a position in her career where she was having that moment.”
Rodrigo will likely face competition from Australia’s The Kid LAROI, who earned two top 10 singles during the past year: “Without You” with Miley Cyrus and “Stay” with Justin Bieber, the latter of which hit No. 1 on the Hot 100. Rapper Saweetie and teen pop upstart Tate McRae are also expected to receive nominations, while critical darlings like Japanese-British pop star Rina Sawayama and U.K. singer-songwriter Arlo Parks could swoop in, too. One of the biggest obstacles to a Rodrigo win could be her actual front-runner status. “People may think that Olivia’s a shoo-in and might not vote for her [because of that],” says one label source, who also wonders if Rodrigo’s retroactive crediting of song- writers on Sour tracks to acknowledge similarities to other songs could quell her own buzz: “She’s sure as hell visible everywhere, but I don’t know how she’s received in the artist community.”
If Rodrigo doesn’t win, it wouldn’t be the first upset in the category. The 2011 ceremony, when jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding beat out Bieber and Drake for best new artist, is proof that anything can happen at the Grammys. All factors considered, the award winner sometimes is the result of good timing. “You just never really know,” says a label source. “You’re lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”